If you think that Scots Gaelic poetry is all about misty corries and wild sea-voyages and laments for fallen chieftains – and of course it is, in part, all those things – then the poetry of Sorley Maclean (or to give him his proper Gaelic name, Somhairle MacGillEain) may come as a bit of a surprise, being quite edgy and modern, concerned with his difficulties in love and experiences in war. In a way Sorley (1911-1996) is an odd case, since he managed to acquire an international reputation as a poet despite writing in what is now, sadly, very much a minority language, and one little known outside Scotland, or indeed even within it: a tongue that for most is enchantingly but irredeemably alien. So, given the relatively small number of readers able to engage properly with the original texts, I think that a good deal of that reputation has had to be taken on trust. True, Sorley provided his own English translations of his poems, which are functional but to my mind read a little awkwardly. Really it would be surprising if this were not the case: there are of course many examples of poets able to write competent verse in more than one language, but real poetry? Offhand I can’t think of any: the head may speak many languages; the heart, only one.
Anyway, here is one of Sorley’s poignant lyrics of despairing love, and, for the reasons given, I have ventured to offer my own translation rather than his. Hm, what’s the Gaelic for chutzpah: perhaps ‘dànachd’ comes close…
An tè dhan tug mi . . .
An tè dhan tug mi uile ghaol,
cha tug i gaol dhomh air a shon;
ged a chiùrradh mise air a sàillibh,
cha do thuig i ’n tàmailt idir.
Ach tric an smuaintean na h-oidhch’
an uair bhios m’ aigne ’na coille chiair,
thig osag chuimhne ’gluasad duillich,
a’ cur a furtachd gu luasgan.
Agus bho dhoimhne coille chuim,
o fhreumhach snodhaich ’s meangach meanbh,
bidh ’n eubha throm: carson bha h-àille
mar fhosgladh fàire ri latha?
She to whom I gave…
I gave to her all love; she gave to me
No love in return.
Although I suffered for her sake
She never saw the shame of it at all.
But often when I lie awake
Memory like a night-breeze
Stirs the dim wood of my mind,
Turning my peace to unrest.
And from the heart of that wood,
From sap-filled root and slender bough,
Will come the heavy cry: why was her beauty
Like a door that opened for me on to day?